Accuracy in Media (AIM) has been at the forefront of a worldwide movement to continue transmission of the only uncensored news in Mandarin to reach the Chinese mainland via New Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV). But the Paris-based satellite operator, Eutelsat, which provides the transmission, could still act on a threat to shut it down.
On April 12, NTDTV held a press conference in New York City to alert people to the censorship threat. AIM participated in the press conference, delivering a statement of support for the network’s position and calling on media outlets in the U.S. to offer more coverage of New Tang Dynasty’s situation. AIM also participated in an NDTV press conference in Washington, D.C., on April 15.
New Tang Dynasty’s signal was scheduled to be terminated Friday at midnight, but is still on, and will remain on during the negotiation process currently underway between NTDTV’s lawyers and Eutelsat. The situation is temporary, however, and the final outcome is unknown.
A year ago, New Tang Dynasty Television, a Manhattan-based pioneering network founded in 2002 by expatriate Chinese, negotiated a contract with Eutelsat after being assured the satellite operator would not bow to censorship pressure from Beijing. New Tang Dynasty TV President Zhong Lee says he met with Eutelsat CEO Giuliano Berretta who personally guaranteed that Eutelsat would adhere to the convention it operates under, by which it is bound to uphold principles of freedom of access, diversity and non-discrimination. “We went through all these scenarios with him, and we believed him,” Lee said, speaking at a packed press conference held Friday in Washington, D.C.
Despite Berretta’s guarantee, less than 30 days after Eutelsat began beaming NTDTV’s broadcasts into China and the rest of Asia, Eutelsat responded favorably to a letter from Chinese authorities demanding that they cease carrying the transmissions. In December of last year, Eutelsat signed what they called a “historic partnership agreement” with state-owned China Satellite Communication Corp. Then Eutelsat informed NTDTV that their contract would not be renewed. Eutelsat says that only economic factors led to its replacement of NTDTV. The company issued a statement saying: “Our company is not subject to political or ideological pressure and…we operate according to pure commercial and business rationale.” The company also said it had lived up to its contract obligations.
On April13th the Wall St. Journal reported that Eutelsat had used NTDTV as a pawn from the outset in a shrewd game of opportunism. Last May, weeks after it began broadcasting NTDTV content into China, Eutelsat received a letter from the vice president of Beijing-owned ChinaSatCom, warning that “broadcast of such [NTDTV] transmission is not authorized in our country and violates the laws of [China].” According to the Journal, Eutelsat then signaled its willingness to cut its ties with NTDTV. Soon the company signed the deal with ChinaSatCom as well as a memorandum of understanding opening the door for further business ties to Beijing. Industry watchers say the NTDTV contract was part of a cynical backroom strategy whereby Eutelsat used the network as bait to lure the Chinese government into previously elusive contracts.
New Tang Dynasty Television runs about 50 news bureaus worldwide, half in the United States. Its world-class programming is varied and includes news from around the world, cultural variety shows, educational programs, discussion and interview programs, sports and entertainment, finance and business programs, and other topics of interest for the Chinese community. The network is a non-profit organization that relies on donors and volunteer contributors. Volunteers in America support the network by doing everything from sending in $50 checks, to scrubbing the toilets at the network’s headquarters. In a short span of three years, the network now has a reach of 200 million subscribers, including 40-60 million in China. With Chinese villages sharing a single satellite dish, the actual viewership figure in China may be as high as 300 million.
The “9 Commentaries”
The upstart network has run afoul of Chinese authorities because of its uncensored reporting on issues like repression in China of political dissenters, corruption within the Chinese Communist Party, and persecution of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. The network was the first to broadcast into China news of the SARS epidemic. New Tang Dynasty credits its rapid rise to a deep hunger on the part of the Chinese community for accurate news and information on culture.
One particularly controversial series produced by New Tang has rocked China. The documentary “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party” (or “Jiu ping”) first appeared as a series of articles in its loosely affiliated newspaper Epoch Times. (“Daijiyuan” is the title of the Chinese language version.) When all 30,000 copies were snapped up within two hours in Hong Kong, Epoch Times printed more. Over the next few days they ran out of paper, and after solving some logistical problems, wound up printing 910,000 copies, all of which were snapped up by customers waiting for copies. Tourists from China in Hong Kong then wound up carrying the commentaries back to China. The scathing commentaries offered an uncensored history of the Communist Party, its human-rights violations, its nature, methods and ideology. Details of the torture of political and religious prisoners as well as photos were included.
This January, New Tang Dynasty began broadcasting its television version of the “9 Commentaries” into China every 24 hours resulting in many rescinding their membership in the CCP. A Chinese-language website run by Epoch Times, http://tuidang.epochtimes.com/, has been receiving and posting statements of individuals within and outside of China who have rescinded their membership in the CCP or in its affiliated organizations after having read the “9 Commentaries.” (Some versions in English are available here http://www.theepochtimes.com/211,95,,1.html) The statements are received by phone or by email. Epoch Times claims that over 900,000 have now rescinded their membership. Some have posted notices about the rescinded memberships in town squares in China, leading even more to want to read the commentaries. Observers say the impact has been nothing short of historic. The dissemination of the commentaries is now being called the “jiu ping phenomena.” Now New Tang is receiving emails from supporters on mainland China distressed over the news of Eutelsat’s scheduled pulling of the information plug.
A “Deal with the devil”
The Washington D.C law firm Cole, Raywid, and Braverman has conducted an investigation into Eutelsat, ChinaSatCom, and the People’s Republic of China, and found “Each has made its deal with the devil.” Attorney Burt Braverman said that Eutelsat sought “much greater business with China, even though it had to forsake the European conventions it operates under and its own charter.” Braverman said Eutelsat had agreed to support China’s repressive policies toward New Tang Dynasty “directly and indirectly” and “ignored” the contract and its renewal. The attorney cited “harassment, threats and offers of bribery―all documented.”
Eutelsat is not a victim, Braverman announced at a Washington D.C. press conference, but a “willing participant to play the People’s Republic of China off other government customers, and use rivalry to generate additional business.” Braverman said today negotiations were still underway with Eutelsat, but that if those negotiations failed, the law firm is prepared to file suit in the District of Columbia against the named defendants, including the U.S. subsidiary of Eutelsat, Eutelsat, Inc. The lawsuit will claim the defendants acted in concert to interfere with the business operations of NTDTV, to end the broadcasts into Asia, to remove them from the W5 satellite, and to “Purposefully and permanently muzzle their free expression.”
Braverman noted that the American legal system allows for extensive discovery and would lead to the obtaining of numerous internal corporate documents and electronic communications: “the essence of the conspiracy.” The attorney promised to “vigorously pursue” the matter, if negotiations failed.
NTDTV President Zhong Lee said that given previous reprisals by the Chinese government against other satellite carriers, should Eutelsat drop the signal NTDTV would have “little chance” of finding another willing carrier.
An International Scandal
The controversy has now become an international dispute over human rights and freedom of the press. Eutelsat’s actions were condemned by Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, two major journalism organizations in Europe who called the move a gross violation of the company’s inter-governmental charter requiring Eutelsat to provide universal service, equal access, and respect for pluralism. The International Federation of Journalists issued a statement saying Beijing had warned that business opportunities linked to broadcasting rights to the 2008 Olympics would be at risk if Eutelsat renews its contract with NTDTV. The federation stated, “The danger to freedom of speech everywhere is in plain view now?For Europe, the case will show whether an outside power writes the broadcasting rules for the Continent.”
Reporters Without Borders participated in a European press conference held in Brussels, Belgium March 15. Also present were members of the European parliament. Statements made at the press conference termed Eutelsat’s termination of NTDTV’s signal a violation of European and international conventions. “Eutelsat has come under strong political and commercial pressures from the Government of China to terminate this broadcast,” said NTDTV. In addition, 64 members of the European parliament signed a letter of support for NTDTV’s stance in the matter. Lucie Morillon, Washington representative for the Europe-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, told AIM the issue had received wide media play in Europe.
Extorting the U.S. Government
The Wall St. Journal reported on Pentagon emails it had obtained referencing the issue. The emails indicated the Pentagon, which gets more than 40% of its leased satellite bandwidth from Eutelsat and is one of its biggest customers, quietly pressured Eutelsat last year to keep NTDTV on the air. Now, however, Eutelsat is telling the U.S. government it can keep NTDTV on the air only if Washington buys more capacity on its satellites. As it is, the Pentagon is one of Eutelsat’s biggest customers, and the French company has benefited handsomely from increased U.S. demand for bandwidth. The Defense Department’s need for commercial communication satellite services has increased exponentially with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In November of 2004 the Washington Post reported that carriers affiliated with the Satellite Industry Association of Alexandria, Va. were lobbying the Pentagon to buy directly from them, instead of through resellers. One of those carriers was Eutelsat. In 2002, it was reported that Eutelsat had already scored a $100 million contract with the U.S. government. In fact some media outlets have voiced concern because some satellite operators have not been able to guarantee them access in Iraq and Afghanistan due to the large military demand.
Caught in the middle of this international struggle over China’s repression of free speech is the U.S. taxpayer. A letter of support for keeping NTDTV on the air to China was penned by Congressmen Christopher H. Smith and Tom Lantos, and was signed by 93 U.S. lawmakers. It says in part: “We see no reason the U.S. taxpayer should fund satellite companies that won’t stand up for freedom of the press, and instead discriminate in favor of repressive regimes and against free media.”
However, a Pentagon email obtained by the Wall Street Journal suggests the U.S. taxpayer may wind up continuing to fund Eutelsat even after it carries out Beijing’s wishes to silence the pioneering NTDTV. The e-mail from Linton Wells, deputy assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence, conceded that Washington has “leverage” with Eutelsat, but added that “we also need to be careful that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by incurring termination liabilities or impeding the ability of war fighters to get the bandwidth they need.” Experts say it will take years for the military to launch enough satellites to fulfill its own bandwidth needs, which have grown ten-fold since September 11, 2001.
AIM Takes Lead
Accuracy in Media has pointed out that the controversy over Eutelsat’s actions appears to be part of a pattern of harassment and intimidation by the Chinese state. Some of these incidents were cited publicly by AIM at the New York City press conference:
NTDTV had a contract with the Netherlands-based satellite operator New Skies Satellites. After only 3 days of broadcasting New Tang Dynasty programs, the satellite operator encrypted the signal, preventing Chinese satellite-dish owners from being able to see the channel. This action followed reported threats of financial reprisals which were made by Chinese authorities to satellite representatives in Beijing.
In February of 2003 the Atlanta-based U.S. satellite operator ADTH was reported to have broken an agreement to carry NTDTV, out of fear of losing contracts with other Chinese channels.
The Toronto Sun reported that a New Tang Dynasty employee suffered burns to his hands after opening an envelope at the station that had white powder inside. Police are investigating to identify the powder and its origin.
Over the past three weeks locks at the TV station’s headquarters have been vandalized.
Chinese news agency Zhongguo Xinwen published a statement in Australia by a spokesman of the Chinese Consulate-General in Sydney who accused NTDTV of spreading “cult doctrine” and an “anti-China message.”
The Chinese Embassy in Toronto denied visas to two NTD staffers, who were accompanying Prime Minister Paul Martin on his trip to Asia.
In February 2003, a New Tang Dynasty reporter was booted from a Chinese consulate-sponsored New Year’s gala at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was kicked out of a public event organized by the City of Philadelphia,” Lily Sun told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’m not in China. The Liberty Bell is here. America was founded here.” The newspaper reported that the city’s communications director, Barbara Grant, urged her to file a complaint with the city’s Human Relations Commission.
Two New Tang reporters said they were barred in August from covering a SARS benefit concert in Massachusetts attended by a Chinese diplomat.
The station said Chinese officials blocked another reporter from covering Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the White House in December.
A New Tang cameraman was blocked from two Philadelphia events attended by the Chinese consul general in New York, Liu Biwei. The station’s crew was almost evicted from Mayor Street’s inaugural ball by the head of the pro-China Global Chinese Alliance for the Unification of China, Temple University math professor John Chen.
Chen told the Philadelphia Inquirer “These people aren’t really press. We want the Chinese image to be projected to American society in the proper way…[New Tang] has a political agenda to make the government look bad.”
These are just some of the examples of harassment and intimidation reported on by the Epoch Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Toronto Sun. In addition, the Associated Press produced an article on the Eutelsat controversy. The article ran in the Boston Globe, Forbes magazine and Business Week.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington made phone calls and sent emails to the National Press Club (NPC) asking them to cancel a December 21, 2004 press conference Epoch Times was planning on the “9 Commentaries.” On the morning of December 21, Sun Weide, the Press Counselor and Spokesman of the Chinese Embassy, again requested the cancellation of the “Jiu Ping” Forum. The next day, John Donnelly, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the NPC, responded to Sun with a letter, stating that the core principle of the NPC is to practice and defend freedom of speech. On December 29th, the NPC issued a press release expressing again its firm stance on safeguarding freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Frank Xie, another Philadelphia reporter for New Tang, told the newspaper “This is a pattern,” adding that China’s policy of controlling the media “has kind of been exported overseas.” Dr. Frank Tian Xie is also Vice-President of The Epoch Times, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the LeBow College of Business, Drexel University, and President of the Greater Philadelphia Asian Culture Center. Danielle Zhu, one of the reporters whose visa to China was denied, has told the Toronto Sun she believes supporters of the Chinese government are trying to intimidate the station because of critical coverage of the Communist regime.
Epoch Times calls the reaction of the government evidence of its “nervousness” over the free dissemination of information, adding that “The demise of the Chinese Communist Party is only a matter of time.”